Menhaden Management Board moves to increase harvest
Anglers cautiously optimistic management still moving in right direction
ALEXANDRIA, VA - The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Menhaden Management Board approved a 10 percent increase in the total allowable catch (TAC) of menhaden for 2015 and 2016 to 187,880 metric tons at its meeting this week. Of paramount concern to anglers and conservationists, the Board also agreed to start an amendment process to establish Ecological Reference Points for menhaden to fulfill its critical role as a forage base, and to re-examine the allocation between the reduction and bait sectors.
“We were working to ensure that the Board would hold harvest steady until the reference points could be established, but pressure from some sectors to ratchet up harvest was intense,” said David Sikorski of the Maryland Chapter of Coastal Conservation Association. “Overall, the Board’s action today was a step in the right direction, but increasing the harvest before we have a better understanding of the role menhaden play could have unforeseen and unintended consequences.”
The Board’s decision this week was in response to the latest assessment that indicated the stock was not overfished and overfishing was not occurring. Armed with that assessment, some sectors were calling for the Board to roll back the entire 20 percent reduction in TAC that was put in place in 2014 after declining populations of menhaden set off alarm bells in the recreational angling community. However, managers found enough troubling indicators of lingering low abundance in the assessment to deny those demands.
Menhaden are a key forage species for most marine predators as well as birds and marine mammals. They are low on the food web, consuming phytoplankton and converting it into protein and, as such, their primary ecological attribute is their abundance and availability to be consumed by animals higher on the food chain. The new stock assessment was a single-species model that did not take into account the ecological role of menhaden as a keystone forage base species, so no one knows how many menhaden it takes to fulfill their forage role in the ecosystem.
“This is a piece of the puzzle in menhaden that has not been determined,” said Richen Brame, Fisheries Director for Coastal Conservation Association. “The Board’s actions are the critical first step in going down that management path – developing Ecological Reference Points that take that into account. As a primary prey species, menhaden are different and management should mean more than simply having enough spawning stock. There should be plenty of all sizes to fuel the predator demand of a large number of important species like striped bass, bluefish and king mackerel. After a tremendous effort to reduce harvest in 2014, the stock has stabilized. It would be tragic to jeopardize that improvement for short-term gains before we have a better grasp of the long-term sustainability of this critical species.”
The development of the Ecological Reference Points will likely take at least a couple of years.